Russell writes in his History of Western Philosophy, in the chapter on Socrates: ‘Socrates, in Plato’s works, always pretends that he is only eliciting knowledge already possessed by the man he is questioning; on this ground, he compares himself to a midwife. When, in the Phaedo and the Meno, he applies his method to geometrical problems, he has to ask leading questions which any judge would disallow. The method is in harmony with the doctrine of reminiscence, according to which we learn by remembering that we knew in a former existence.’ (Russell, p. 97-98)
Russell extrapolates from the Meno to the Phaedo. For in the Phaedo Socrates does not apply his method of questioning to geometrical problems, although his having been doing so on previous occasions is strongly affirmed in the dialogue.
In the chapter on Plato’s Theory of Immortality Russell writes: ‘To return to the Phaedo: Cebes expresses doubts as to the survival of the soul after death, and urges Socrates to offer arguments. This he proceeds to do … The first argument is that all things which have opposites are generated from their opposites … Now life and death are opposites, and therefore each must generate the other. It follows that the souls of the dead exist somewhere, and come back to earth in due course.’ (p. 137)
In the dialogue, at this point Cebes intervenes: “‘Yes, and besides, Socrates,’ Cebes replied, ‘there’s also that theory (Kai mȇn, ephȇ ho Kebȇs hupolabȏn, kai kat’ ekeinon geton logon, ȏ Sȏkrates) you’re always putting forward (hon su eiȏthas thama legein), that our learning is actually nothing but recollection (hoti hȇmin hȇ mathȇsis ouk allo ti ȇ anamnȇsis tunchanei ousa); according to that too (kai kata touton), if it’s true (ei alȇthȇs estin), what we are now reminded of we must have learned at some former time (anankȇ pou hȇmas en proterȏi tini chronȏi memathȇkenai ha nun anamimnȇiskometha). But that would be impossible (touto de adunaton), unless our souls existed somewhere (ei mȇ ȇn pou hȇmin hȇ psuchȇ) before being borne in this human form (prin en tȏide tȏi anthrȏpinȏi eidei genesthai); so in this way too (hȏste kai tautȇi), it appears that the soul is something immortal (athanaton hȇ psuchȇ ti eoiken einai.’
‘Yes, what are the proofs of those points, Cebes?’ put in Simmias (Alla, ȏ Kebȇs, ephȇ ho Simmias hupolabȏn, poiai toutȏn hai apodeixeis). Remind me (hupomnȇson me), as I don’t recall them very well at the moment (ou gar sphodra en tȏi paronti memnȇmai).’
‘One excellent argument,’ said Cebes (Heni men logȏi, ephȇ ho Kebȇs, kallistȏi), ‘is that when people are questioned (hoti erȏtȏmenoi hoi anthrȏpoi), and if questions are well put (ean tis kalȏs erȏtai), they state the truth about everything for themselves (autoi legousin panta hȇi echei) – and yet unless knowledge and a correct account were present within them (kaitoi ei mȇ etunchanen autois epistȇmȇ enousa kai orthos logos), they’d be unable to do this (ouk an hoioi t’ ȇsan touto poiȇsai); thus, if one takes them to diagrams (epeita ean tis epi ta diagrammata agȇi) or anything else of that sort (ȇ allo ti tȏn toioutȏn), one has there the plainest evidence that this is so (entautha saphestata katȇgorei hoti touto houtȏs echei).’
‘But if that doesn’t convince you, Simmias,’ said Socrates (Ei de mȇ tautȇi ge, ephȇ, peithȇi, ȏ Simmia, ho Sȏkratȇs), ‘then see (skepsai) whether maybe you agree if you look at it this way (an tȇide pȇi soi skopoumenȏi sundoxȇi). Apparently you doubt (apisteis gar dȇ) whether what is called “learning” is recollection (pȏs hȇ kaloumenȇ mathȇsis anamnȇsis estin)?’
‘I don’t doubt it’, said Simmias (Apistȏ men egȏge, ȇ d’ hos ho Simmias, ou): ‘but I do need to undergo just what the argument is about (auto de touto, ephȇ, deomai pathein peri hou ho logos), to be “reminded” (anamnȇsthȇnai). Actually, from the way Cebes set about stating it, I do almost recall it (kai schedon ge ex hȏn Kebȇs epecheirȇse legein ȇdȇ memnȇmai) and am nearly convinced (kai peithomai); but I’d like, none the less (ouden ment’an hȇtton), to hear (akouoimi) now how you set about stating it yourself (nun pȇi su epecheirȇsas legein).’
‘I’ll put it this way (Tȇid’ egȏge, ȇ d’ hos). We agree (homologoumen gar), I take it (dȇpou), that if anyone is to be reminded of a thing (ei tis ti anamnȇsthȇsetai) he must have known that thing at some time previously (dein auton touto proteron pote epistasthai)?’” (Phaedo 72e3-73c2, tr. David Gallop)
The way, in which Socrates is about to prove that ‘what is called “learning” is recollection’ has nothing to do with geometrical problems, it is concerned with the Forms. Socrates proves the point concerning the notion of equality, and then he says: ‘Our present argument concerns the beautiful itself, and the good itself, and just and holy, no less than the equal (ou gar peri tou isou nun ho logos hȇmin mallon ti ȇ peri autou tou kalou kai autou tou agathou, kai dikaiou kai hosiou); in fact, as I say (kai, hoper legȏ), it concerns everything on which we set this seal (peri hapantȏn hois episphragizometha), “what it is” (to “auto ho esti”), in the questions we ask (kai en tais erȏtȇsesin erȏtȏntes) and in the answers we give (kai en tais apokrisesin apokrinomenoi, 75c10-d3, tr. Gallop).’
It is worth noting that the ‘proof’ or the Theory of Recollection by questioning a person concerning geometrical problems, ‘if one takes them to diagrams or anything else of that sort’, is accepted neither by Cebes, nor by Simmias, as valid. Cebes qualifies it with the words ‘if it’s true’ (ei alȇthȇs estin, 72e4). Simmias is only ‘nearly convinced (kai schedon ge peithomai, 73b8-9), and Socrates expects him to be unconvinced – ‘but if that does not convince you’ (ei de mȇ tautȇi ge peithȇi, 73b3), while his own belief in its validity appears to be unshaken.
In the opening paragraph I am quoting Russell’s ‘When, in the Phaedo and the Meno, he [i.e. Socrates] applies his method to geometrical problems, he has to ask leading questions which any judge would disallow.’ On any dating of these two dialogues I have come across, Plato’s publication of the Meno precedes that of the Phaedo. On the generally accepted dating both were written after Plato’s first journey to Italy and Sicily, where Plato got in contact with the Pythagoreans: the Meno with its Theory of Recollection is the first result of that acquaintance, the theory of Forms developed in the Phaedo comes next. On that dating, one might speculate that when Plato wrote the Phaedo he became aware that in the Meno his Socrates ‘has to ask leading questions which any judge would disallow’, and that this is why he presented Cebes and Simmias as unconvinced by it.
In The Lost Plato in Chapter 10 entitled ‘Plato versus Anytus’ I argue that Plato must have written the Meno prior to the indictment and death of Socrates: ‘In 401, two years before Socrates died, Meno took part in the ill-fated attempt of Cyrus the younger to dethrone the Persian king Artaxerxes. He joined Cyrus’ army at the head of a mercenary contingent from Thessaly (Xenophon, Anabasis I.ii.6) and after Cyrus fell he became instrumental in the capture of the Greek commanders by the Persians (Xen. An. II.iii-vi). In the Meno, Socrates in his closing words exhorts Meno to persuade Anytus, Meno’s host, of all that he himself has been persuaded by Socrates in their discussioin (su de ta auta tauta haper autos pepeisai peithe kai ton xenon tonde Anuton), so that he might become more gentle (hina praioteros ȇi): ‘if you succeed in persuading him, you will benefit the Athenians’ (hȏs ean peisȇis touton, estin hoti kai Athȇnaious onȇseis, 100b7-c2). If Plato wrote the Meno after the death of Socrates, as is currently believed, both he himself and his readers were bound to think of Anytus first and foremost as the principal accuser of Socrates, and of Meno as the scoundrel (hȏs ponȇros, Xenophon, Anabasis II.vi.29) who betrayed the Greek army commanders to the Persians. I cannot see how Plato could have written the Meno in these circumstances. This is why I date the dialogue prior to Meno’s involvement in Cyrus’ military expedition.’
On my dating of the Meno, this dialogue with its ‘leading questions which any judge would disallow’ couldn’t but stand in the way of Cebes’ and Simmias’ accepting Socrates’ prowess in discussing geometrical problems as a convincing proof of the Theory of Recollection.